Coming to a movie classic with fresh eyes can be an enlightening experience. A recent viewing of The French Connection is an interesting case in point.
The 1971 “cops vs. drugs” drama frequently makes a variety of “best of” lists. It earned eight Oscar nominations and took home five (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor). It was a prime example of a certain school and generation of filmmaking. But does it hold up more than four decades later?
The French Connection centers on NYPD detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider). The duo stumbles onto the trail of convenience store owner Sal Boca (Tony LoBianco), acting like a big shot in spite of apparently limited means. Surveillance and a hunch lead Jimmy and Buddy to conclude that Sal is plugged into a big drug deal. Which he is, working with Weinstock (Harold Gary), a businessman in the NYPD’s crosshairs, to handle a big shipment of cocaine being smuggled into the country by French schemer Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). What follows is a tense cat-and-mouse game, punctuated by bursts of violent action.
Director William Friedkin specialized in this kind of gritty film. The French Connection was a key moment in a darker, more naturalistic movement. It put the focus on the grimy everyday world of a realistic New York, eschewing the stardust sheen and luxe production values of earlier cinematic offerings. That kind of impulse toward gritty minimalism is the kind of movement that seems to take hold of the industry every few years, in one permutation or another.
So The French Connection wasn’t set to swelling orchestrations. In fact, the film featured long stretches of tense silence, eventually broken by staccato modern jazz riffs. There were no lush swirls shot through Vaseline-daubed camera lenses. The proceedings were bleak and gritty, dimly lit with restless, shaky camera work that conveyed momentum and agitation.
It was also a movie given to building tension to an excruciating point and then pushing beyond it. There were lots of scenes of surveillance, of the cops tailing the bad guys (on foot, in cars). In one memorable sequence, Doyle and Charnier played a game of chicken with a series of entrances and exits from a crowded subway car. The unglamorous but important part of police work. When the action did explode, it felt like a rushing freight train. A shooting gave way to a frenzied chase sequence involving a city train and a speeding car below the tracks. Jimmy (in a Santa suit) and Buddy broke cover on a street corner to chase a suspect. The climax involved a bloody shootout that was far removed from the romanticized duels from Old Hollywood westerns and crime capers. The French Connection was dark and forlorn. But it also had, and still has, an undeniable power. Oscar winner Hackman was especially commanding. He inhabited the low rent, jittery Doyle, communicating a lot with acutely observed nervous tics and a sardonic sense of irony.
For all its power, watching The French Connection can be a challenging proposition for modern audiences. The complicated racial attitudes on display may have been accurate to the period when the film was made, but can be tough to stomach decades later. It’s valuable and interesting in many ways, but a scene like Doyle and Russo rousting a roomful of black patrons at a Harlem bar, mostly as a pretext, can’t help but be uncomfortable for a modern audience, especially given the current cultural climate. The entire notion of a police force allowing its officers to go on a cowboy crusade can’t help but be unsettling.
The climax can’t help but feel off somehow, either. There was a logic gap of sorts regarding the timing of the final confrontation. But the film left ambiguous whether or not that was deliberate. Grandstanding from Doyle to make a point? Doyle certainly didn’t end the movie on an heroic note. That kind of cynicism about the efficacy of the War on Drugs has only gathered more force in the years since The French Connection debuted. It’s themes are still relevant, even if its trappings are discomfiting.
In the end, it’s not difficult for a modern viewer to see why audiences and critics responded so strongly to The French Connection when it was released. If some elements have aged better than others, it’s still a vital document of a particular moment in the evolution of filmmaking that’s important to the education of a serious cinema fan.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on July 9, 2015.